Getting Lincoln Right

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John Tyler, the tenth President of the United States of America, was a member of the Confederate House of Representatives.

This fact is openly noted at the end of the biography of President Tyler on the White House web site. Tyler’s service as a Confederate States Congressman is but one fact which must be noted in demonstrating that Jack Kemp, in his article "Getting Lincoln Right," gets Lincoln utterly wrong.

Rather than provide a convincing argument to those persons, such as myself, who criticize Lincoln, Kemp has provided a piece of mere cheerleading.

Kemp sets the tone by noting that he dislikes ad hominem attacks on Abe Lincoln. This revelation comes at the conclusion of the first paragraph, where Kemp discusses the works of Lerone Bennett and Joseph Sobran — two noted Lincoln critics. Bennett and Sobran, however, are not actually charged with having made ad hominem attacks on Lincoln, and well they should not be; both authors point to many unpleasant facts in their criticisms of Lincoln.

Kemp then advances several arguments to support his view of Lincoln. First, Kemp quotes Lincoln’s second inaugural address to no purpose. Second, Kemp utters a sound bite worthy of a Clinton — "assassins of Lincoln’s character miss by a mile." This otherwise pointless bit of sloganeering at least conveys the suspicion that differences of opinion are somehow equivalent to crimes for Kemp, as if criticizing Lincoln is somehow equivalent to murder.

Next, Kemp quotes Lincoln to the effect that Lincoln viewed blacks and whites as equally possessed of "the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence." Even if Lincoln held such a view of blacks, this is not enough to support Kemp’s defense of Lincoln against the charges of racism.

For example, Kemp conveniently ignores the public statements of Lincoln to the effect that the black and white races could never live together in peace, and that, if they must live together, one race had to be superior, which Lincoln preferred to be the white race. These statements of Lincoln are reported, among other places, in C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Woodward (who taught history at Yale) relates that in 1858, Lincoln stated that

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races [the crowd applauds] — that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people, and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the black and white races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. (p 21)

Rather than confront Lincoln’s own words, Kemp merely quotes Lincoln’s second inaugural and Lincoln’s comments about the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately for Kemp, such other statements made by Lincoln cannot nullify the explicitly white supremacist statements of Lincoln quoted above.

Kemp also argues: 1) that the election of 1864 was a referendum on the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, 2) that Lincoln was the first president to invite blacks to the White House, and 3) that Frederick Douglass did not feel that Lincoln regarded him as inferior.

Again, these arguments cannot erase Lincoln’s own white supremacist statements. Additionally, the arguments are not convincing in themselves. The mere fact that the 13th Amendment was on the table during the presidential election of 1864 proves nothing; Kemp offers no facts to support his interpretation of the election as such a mandate. Next, the mere fact that Lincoln invited blacks to the White House proves nothing other than that Lincoln invited blacks to the White House. Given Lincoln’s statements quoted above, this would appear to have been a mere public relations maneuver. Finally, although it is good to learn that Frederick Douglass did not feel ill at ease with Lincoln, this again does not change the fact that Lincoln publicly stated that whites should be superior to blacks.

Abraham Lincoln may indeed have believed that blacks should enjoy the same legal rights as whites. But he also believed that the freed blacks should enjoy them somewhere separate from whites. Lincoln therefore worked, even during the war, to ship freed blacks to colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and South America.

Kemp notes that Lincoln was a man of his times. And indeed he was, as Lincoln himself noted in the quotation above, when Lincoln stated that "I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race." As C. Vann Woodward notes, the North was not friendly to blacks:

By 1830 slavery was virtually abolished by one means or another throughout the North, with only about 3500 Negroes remaining in bondage in the nominally free states…For all that, the Northern Negro was made painfully and constantly aware that he lived in a society dedicated to the doctrine of white supremacy and Negro inferiority. The major political parties…made sure in numerous ways that the Negro understood his u2018place’ and that he was severely confined to it. One of these ways was segregation, and with the backing of legal and extra-legal codes, the system permeated all aspects of Negro life in the free states by 1860. (p 17-18)

As Woodward continues,

Generally speaking, the farther west the Negro went in the free states the harsher he found the proscription and segregation. Indiana, Illinois, and Oregon incorporated in their constitutions provisions restricting the admission of Negroes to their borders, and most states carved from the old Northwest Territory either barred Negroes in some degree or required that they post bond guaranteeing good behavior. Alexis de Tocqueville was amazed at the depth of racial bias he encountered in the North. u2018The prejudice of race,’ he wrote, u2018appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.’…

Only 6 percent of the Northern Negroes lived in the five states — Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and Rhode Island — that by 1860 permitted them to vote. The Negro’s rights were curtailed in the courts as well as at the polls. By custom or by law Negroes were excluded from jury service throughout the North. Only in Massachusetts, and there not until 1855, were they admitted as jurors. Five Western states prohibited Negro testimony in cases where a white man was a party. The ban against Negro jurors, witnesses, and judges, as well as the economic degradation of the race, help to explain the disproportionate numbers of Negroes in Northern prisons and the heavy limitations on the protection of Negro life, liberty, and property. (p 19-20)

So 94% of Northern blacks were not able to vote as late as 1860. This is the North that allegedly fought a war for "equality." As Woodward concludes,

It is clear that when its victory was complete and the time came, the North was not in the best possible position to instruct the South, either by precedent and example, or by force of conviction, on the implementation of what eventually became one of the professed war aims of the Union cause — racial equality. (21)

Like murderers who "find religion" in prison, it appears that the North "found equality" only during a bloody war which killed 620,000 Americans. But of course, that is not the case. Soon after the end of the war, five Northern states voted to deny blacks the right to vote (Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, p 300).

Additionally, accepting for the sake of argument the Northern claim that the South is populated by racists, the North is certainly no better. Detroit and New York are not known for their racial harmony. Also, consider the fact that the mayor of York, Pennsylvania — Charles H. Robertson — surrendered on charges of murdering a black girl in 1969. Although the mayor denies involvement in the murder, he has admitted to shouting "white power" at a white power rally the day before the killing. If he were a Southern mayor, you can bet the newspapers and television would be filled with little else besides stories about such allegations of racially-motivated murder. By the way: Robertson was a police officer at the time. According to the York Dispatch, "Robertson has said he does not remember those events, but described himself as a racist at the time."

Kemp also ignores the fact that, in 1865 (the year the war ended), the Republican governor of Illinois (i.e., from Lincoln’s own party), Richard Yates, stated that "The war has tended, more than any other event in the history of the country to militate against the Jeffersonian idea, that u2018u2018the best government is that which governs least.”" (Hummel 332). Despite Kemp’s references to the Declaration of Independence, then, it seems that Jack Kemp disdains the Jeffersonian political philosophy of limited government.

In support of his claim that Lincoln "worked toward the emancipation of slaves by constitutional means," Kemp quotes John Stuart Mill to the effect that the abolitionists were willing to violate the Constitution, while the Republicans were not. Such a generic statement cannot substitute for a thorough historical examination of what Lincoln actually did. In this regard, one is forced to wonder to which "constitutional means" Kemp is referring. As I have previously argued in "Contra Claremont" and "Three Views of the Constitution," Lincoln did not act with constitutional scruples, but rather acted like a dictator.

Kemp goes on to note that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, to which one can only reply: so what? What Martin Luther King, Jr. may have thought about Abraham Lincoln cannot settle questions of history, law and philosophy. This is not an argument but an emotional appeal, as though Lincoln must have been a great guy because Martin Luther King, Jr. is seen as a good guy. As I have previously written with respect to the Claremont Institute’s pieces in praise of Lincoln, Kemp’s argument is name-dropping in support of name dropping, and, as Aristotle notes, the argument from authority is the weakest argument.

Finally, Kemp contends that because of "secession, an illegal act, Lincoln knew he had but one course to take: saving the Union. Lincoln knew that the cause of the Union, predicated on our declaration of "equality," was the cause of freedom for all." So Lincoln was fighting for freedom for all. This claim, of course, turns the language of the Declaration of Independence against itself, as it subverts the claim that "government rests upon the consent of the governed." The federal government did not enjoy the consent of the Southern states, and so forced them at gunpoint to remain in the union.

By the way, Kemp here concedes that the war was over political union, and not over slavery or equality. Note that Kemp writes that "the cause of the Union" was "predicated on equality." Although it may have been “predicated on equality” (which it was not), it was in fact fought over the voluntary nature of the political union of the Constitution of 1789.

Also, secession was not an illegal act (see my two articles linked above for a more detailed argument). The Constitution of 1789 gave particular powers to the federal government, reserving all other powers to the states and the people of the states via the 9th and 10th Amendments, as well as in virtue of the common sense fact that a government of delegated powers has only those powers which have been delegated. The Constitution of 1789, which created a federal government of delegated powers, did not delegate the power to force states to remain in the union. If this power is possessed by the federal government, by logical extension, does the federal government also have the power to force individual citizens to remain in the United States at gunpoint? Is it illegal for individual citizens to renounce their citizenship? On Lincoln’s view, it would have to be, otherwise why prevent the renunciation of citizenship by entire states through their legislatures?

The following persons all recognized the right of states to secede (again, see my two articles linked above for more details):

  • William Rawle, George Washington’s first nominee to be the first Attorney General of the United States. Rawle wrote the constitutional law textbook used at West Point until 1861, A View of the Constitution. In Chapter 32 of the book, Rawle recognizes the right of secession. In other words, before Abraham Lincoln’s war, the federal government officially taught its military officers at West Point that states had the right to secede.
  • St. George Tucker. In 1803, Tucker published an American edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries, which included View of the Constitution. This was only 14 years after the Constitution of 1789 was ratified. Tucker argues that the states having first seceded from England, and then from the Articles of Confederation, it necessarily follows that states had the right to secede under the Constitution. More strongly, Tucker argues that states have a duty to secede when the federal government usurps its powers delegated under the Constitution.
  • Thomas Jefferson (the third President of the US). The author of the Declaration of Independence, and its phrase that governments derive "their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed," repeated these revolutionary sentiments in the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, authored in response to the nullification of the First Amendment by President John Adams (the second president) via the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. A mere nine years after the Constitution was ratified, the Federalist Party made opposition political speech a crime. Among those newspaper editors imprisoned under the Sedition Act was Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin. Bache died shortly after being released from jail. A friend of Jefferson, Bache’s crime was criticizing the Adams regime in print. In response to the Alien and Sedition Acts, Jefferson reiterated the right of secession to overthrow tyrannical governments.
  • John Quincy Adams (the sixth president). Adams supported the secession of the New England states in response to the War of 1812. In particular, when the British burned Washington, DC, the New England states, fearful of the destruction of their homes at the hands of the British, argued that the federal government had breached its constitutional duty to protect against foreign invasion. On this point, see Tom DiLorenzo’s chapter "Yankee Confederates" in Secession, State and Liberty.
  • Joseph Story (Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court). Like John Quincy Adams, Story also supported New England secession. Aside from the War of 1812, various New England states threatened secession in 1803 over the Louisiana Purchase (since it was feared by the WASPish North that the addition of Roman Catholic Spaniards would dilute the ethnic purity of America) and in 1809 over the embargo.
  • Franklin Pierce (the 14th President of the US). Lincoln’s Secretary of War, William Seward, wrote papers to arrest former president Pierce because Pierce dared argue that Lincoln’s acts in starting and waging the war were unconstitutional.
  • James Buchanan (the 15th President of the US). Buchanan, who allowed the CSA to seize federal properties, but did not act on CSA offers of compensation, blamed Lincoln for provoking the South into war.
  • John Tyler (the tenth President of the US). Of "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" fame, Tyler was a member of the Confederate House of Representatives.
  • Lord Acton. The esteemed British (and Roman Catholic) intellectual famously wrote to Robert E. Lee:

I saw in States Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy…. I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.

Acton, by the way, was a Roman Catholic. As, of course, was Pope Pius IX, who sent Jefferson Davis a crown of thorns — made by the pope himself — while Davis was imprisoned after the war. For those Irish Catholics like myself, consider the following statement from a British historian comparing Lincoln’s treatment of the South with English treatment of Ireland:

It is startling to realize that Lincoln did not believe in the principle of the self-determination of peoples…Lincoln fought against them [the South] with more determination than any British Prime Minister fought against Ireland…Perhaps Gladstone’s sympathy for the South is more understandable if this aspect of the case is considered. He saw them as a nation struggling to be free…To those who associate the principle of self-determination with the United States it comes as something of a shock to find that Abraham Lincoln, associated in one’s mind with liberty and democracy, should argue so firmly against it. Yet the fact is unavoidable. [J.K.C. Wheare, Abraham Lincoln and the United States (London 1961), quoted in Charles Adams, When in the Course of Human Events, p 13].

Those are a great number of notables for Kemp to simply ignore.

If Kemp really wants to "get Lincoln right," why does he simply ignore the rather significant supporters of secession?

Also, should those who debate the greatness of Lincoln ignore the fact that he arrested and exiled a US Congressman from Ohio — Clement Valladingham — who was also running for governor of Ohio at the time, over anti-war remarks made during a campaign speech? Valladingham was arrested in his bedroom in the middle of the night.

Should one also overlook Lincoln’s destruction of the rule of law in "loyal" Maryland? When Maryland voiced its support for the CSA and appeared itself ready to secede, Lincoln arrested 31 Maryland legislators, the mayor of Baltimore (the nation’s 3rd largest city at the time), and a US Congressman from Maryland, as well as numerous editors and publishers.

Not only did Lincoln imprison two US Congressmen, he also wrote out an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Roger Taney, after Taney wrote the opinion in Ex Parte Merryman (1861) rebuking Lincoln’s illegitimate suspension of habeas corpus (see Charles Adams, p 46-53). John Marshall, whose opinion in Marbury v. Madison (1803) famously declared that "It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is," also wrote the opinion in Ex Parte Bollman and Swartwout (1807) declaring that suspension of habeas corpus was a power vested only in the Congress. Lincoln simply ignored the law. Additionally, US Army troops refused to release Merryman into the custody of a federal marshal sent by Taney pursuant to the court order that Merryman be freed.

Lincoln, then, imprisoned members of the federal legislative branch, and also sought to imprison the chief member of the federal judiciary. What happened to checks and balances? Lincoln, with the backing of the army, simply exercised whatever powers he desired. As noted Lincoln scholar Mark Neely writes in The Last Best Hope of Earth, Lincoln arrested the Marylanders "without much agonizing over their constitutionality" (p 133).

These are the acts of a role model? Apparently, they are to Jack Kemp, or else Kemp simply does not know what Lincoln actually did.

In closing, to judge Lincoln, consider Aristotle’s Politics and Montesquieu’s Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline. First, Aristotle writes that

For just as bodies that are in a good state with respect to health, or ships that are in a fine condition for a voyage with respect to their crews, admit of more errors without being destroyed by them, while bodies that are in a diseased condition and ships with loosened timbers and a poor crew cannot bear up even under small errors, so too in the case of regimes the worse need the most defense. (1321b34-39; trans. Carnes Lord).

As it is with regimes, so it is with presidents — whether the 16th (Lincoln) or the 42nd (Clinton).

Finally, Kemp contends that Lincoln preserved the Union. And so he did. In passing, one notes that wars to forcibly preserve unions are not considered "just wars" under just war theory. Such moral considerations aside (can’t let ethics get in the way of greatness), what kind of Union did Lincoln "preserve?" As Montesquieu writes,

In a state where we seem to see nothing but commotion there can be union — that is, a harmony resulting in happiness, which alone is true peace. It is as with the parts of the universe, eternally linked together by the action of some and the reaction of others. But, in the concord of Asiatic despotism — that is, of all government which is not moderate — there is always real dissension. The worker, the soldier, the lawyer, the magistrate, the noble are joined only inasmuch as some oppress the others without resistance. And, if we see any union there, it is not citizens who are united but dead bodies buried one next to the other. (p 94)

In praising the "preservation" of such a union, Kemp should be wary of the company he keeps. Chinese premier Zhu Rongii in 1999 called Lincoln a "model" for China’s desire to forcibly reunite Taiwan to the mainland. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, called Boris Yelstin "Russia’s Abraham Lincoln" because of the Russian war on Chechnya. One would not have expected to find Jack Kemp politically aligned with Bill Clinton, Chinese communists and Russian nationalists. But politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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